Through weeks of up and down performances leading to a heartbreaking midseason loss to LSU, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn believes there were only two ways his team could have responded.
“I think any time you go through major adversity, it either makes you weaker or stronger,” Malzahn said at Tuesday afternoon’s press conference. “We are a stronger team today than we were five weeks ago.”
Not many gave Auburn a chance to compete in the Southeastern Conference after falling 27-23 in Baton Rouge. Ahead of the Tigers after Arkansas and Texas A&M was what many dubbed “Amen Corner,” a finale of the regular season consisting of SEC leaders Georgia and Alabama in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The first step toward complete redemption for Malzahn is complete.
A 40-17 hammering of Kirby Smart’s No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs flagged Auburn as a newfound playoff contender, its pair of losses to LSU and Clemson now distant memories.
The Tigers turned in their most complete showing of the season, dominating the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry in every facet. Malzahn believes that routine to a be a sign of things to come in momentum, playoff-deciding showdowns.
“Our guys played their best game two weeks ago when the pressure was the highest,” Malzahn said. “So the good thing for us is we have experience with that.”
To No. 6 Auburn, facing off with the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in the Iron Bowl is a different animal.
“Now this is a different team, okay?” Malzahn said. “They are very talented. They are used to winning; they’ve won a lot, so this is a big challenge for us.”
Nick Saban’s team has blazed its way to an unblemished 11-0 record, however the past two wins over SEC teams have proven disadvantageous to the remainder of the Tide’s season.
Alabama is decimated at the linebacker position. Terrell Lewis, Christian Miller, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Mack Wilson are all out for the season. Lewis and Miller were lost in the season opener against Florida State, while Hamilton and Wilson were injured against LSU.
On Alabama’s offensive line, guard Ross Pierschbacher left the game against Mississippi State early with a high ankle sprain. He will miss Alabama’s game vs. Mercer, but there is hope that he will be back in time for the Auburn game.
Arguably Alabama’s best defensive player -- lockdown corner Minkah Fitzpatrick -- is not 100 percent. He missed action against LSU and was not back to full health last weekend against Mississippi State even though he played the whole game. Nick Saban said Fitzpatrick was “day-to- day” this week with a hamstring injury.
With an abundance of injuries at linebacker, Alabama is being forced to throw underclassmen into the fire. True freshman Dylan Moses is playing inside linebacker along with Keith Holcombe. This caused problems against Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs were able to run the ball effectively and control the clock against Alabama as they ran for 172 yards and had the ball for almost 39 minutes.
For the Tigers, Malzahn insisted that no news was good news after a 42-14 win over Louisiana Monroe on Saturday.
“As of right now, I’d say everybody has a good chance of playing,” Malzahn said. “There are two or three that are possibilities. Once it gets to Thursday I’ll probably have a better idea -- Tré Williams, we’ll see where he’s at, and we’ll see where Jeremiah Dinson is later in the week, but I expect everyone else to play.”
Auburn will look to line up against a depleted Alabama front with Heisman hopeful running back Kerryon Johnson and an offensive line that was named a finalist for the Joe Moore award on Tuesday, given annually to the nation’s top O-line.
Johnson will still be without running mate Kamryn Pettway, who has officially been ruled out.
Mississippi State initiated rushing success against the Tide, finding pay-dirt on the ground three times in the 31-24 loss, the most ever against a Nick Saban-led Alabama team.
Johnson has rushed for 1,172 yards and 16 touchdowns in just nine games.
“Now he’s healthy, he’s playing with a lot of confidence,” Malzahn said of Johnson. “He’s getting stronger as the game goes on, he’s wanting the football and he’s playing at a high level.”
The winner of Saturday’s showdown will boast the SEC West crown, an accolade that will lead to a date with Georgia in the SEC Championship game.
In layman’s terms, this is a playoff game. Malzahn claims that a “loser goes home” mentality is nothing new to his 2017 squad.
“Since LSU we’ve been in the playoffs and having to win every game,” Malzahn said. “We’ve had that mindset and with that comes a lot of pressure. But it’s healthy pressure, especially when you are able to do what you say.
"After that LSU game we stood in this room and we said ‘we have to win five in a row.’ We took it one game at a time, and we’ve won four. No. 5 is Saturday.”
Just 14 days after the win over No. 1 Georgia -- a game that was easily the biggest on The Plains since the 2013 Iron Bowl -- Auburn will reload to clash with another titan. Bewilderingly, Saturday will only be the second time in the Iron Bowl’s 124-year-old history that the contest will decide the West.
The only other instance? 2013.
“You have the Iron Bowl with the possibility of a SEC West Championship,” Malzahn said. “It feels like 2013. It feels exactly the same way.”
Jake Wright, sports writer, contributed to this story with an Alabama injury update.